I recently transitioned my voracious readers, in my elementary ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom, from a steady diet of Shakespeare to a more balanced literacy model incorporating other gifted writers, such as J.R.R. Tolkien. While varying their literary choices has allowed me to introduce them to such great Tolkien works as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I had not anticipated discovering so much common ground between the two writers. My students’ intense positive reactions to Tolkien’s works, which I had only previously encountered when studying Shakespeare, were what piqued my interest in discovering if the two writers were more akin than one might initially think.
My curiosity led me to a series of scholarly essays released in 2007 by McFarland & Company, Inc. After googling “Tolkien and Shakespeare”, this book (pictured), Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Languages, edited by Janet Brennan Croft, kept appearing in all of the search results. Determining this to be the most authoritative source on the subject, I decided it would be worth a read. As a fan of both writers and well aware of their many academic merits in the language classroom, I was fascinated by the many “parallels to be found in their bodies of work”.
Tolkien’s Views on Shakespeare
J.R.R. Tolkien made no secret of his disdain for Shakespeare. As a professor at Oxford, he often felt that too much attention was given in the English classroom to Shakespeare and felt that a balanced language and literature course should be “based on ancient and medieval texts” and should pay little attention to anything more modern than Geoffrey Chaucer. “Drama is naturally hostile to fantasy”, which Tolkien believed was most evident in Shakespeare’s treatment of the fairie world. Tolkien felt that the stage detracted from the power of fantasy portrayal in the reader’s imagination. While both writers hailed from Warwickshire and may have used its inhabitants as inspirations for characters such as hobbits and the Mechanicals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tolkien felt that Shakespeare debased elves in an unforgiveable way and was determined to make his portrayals vastly different than Shakespeare’s diminutive depictions. He also strongly desired to restore to England its own glorious mythology, which was so deeply influenced by that of its invaders. As elves and fairies served as major characters in both Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is easy to draw comparisons to Tolkien’s treatment of fairie. Shakespeare chose to draw on Anglo-Saxon tradition for characters such as Ariel or Puck, while Tolkien used Norse, Celtic, and Germanic mythologies to inspire his characters. Over time, the changing religious influences in England by the Christian church affected its views on Celtic mythology. Thus Tolkien was attempting to restore England to its possible rightful origins by returning it to its mythological roots.
Despite Tolkien’s dislike of Shakespeare, he often borrowed both the words and characters from many of his plays and rewrote them as intentional inversions. For example, Tolkien chose to invert many of Shakespeare’s phrases such as “all that is gold does not glitter”, which strongly resembles “all that glisters is not gold” from The Merchant of Venice. The Lord of the Rings‘ protagonist Aragorn seems to invert many of the less desirable traits of Henry V‘s Hal, such as his ambiguousness contrasted with Aragorn’s great clarity. Both characters choose to be called by more common names such as Hal or Strider. Tolkien and Shakespeare both seem to be obsessed with the right to princely power and its usurpation and chose similar contrasting settings for both Hal and Aragorn to demonstrate their character’s evolution (The Boar’s Head/The Prancing Pony and The Battle of Agincourt/Black Gate). Henry V is not the only play to share themes of power with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Many comparisons may also be drawn concerning the lack of appreciation for one’s children (King Lear and Cordelia versus Denethor and Faramir) and portraying a king as a commoner traveling incognito (Lear/Aragorn) in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Natural comparisons lie between Shakespeare’s portrayal of wizards in The Tempest‘s Prospero and Tolkien’s Gandalf and Saruman. During both writers’ lives, the treatment of magic varied greatly from intense belief during Elizabethan times to a widely-held acceptance as strictly fantasy by World War II. Both Shakespeare and Tolkien’s wizards Prospero and Saruman have minions in the form of Ariel and Wormtongue to do their bidding while Tolkien juxtaposes the negative and positive attributes of Prospero in both the characters of Saruman and Gandalf, respectively. Macbeth also seemed to make an appearance in Lord of the Rings, as the heroine Eowyn may have ultimately realized Lady Macbeth’s plea of “unsex me here” when she disguises herself as the warrior Dernhelm and is able to slay the Witch-king, whom no man can kill, much as “none of woman born” can kill Macbeth. Tolkien also greatly disliked the portrayal of the moving of Birnam Wood, when viewing productions of Macbeth, and chose to remedy this affront to fantasy by his creation of the Ents, walking-and-talking trees who can literally move. The magic of the mind and the tricks it may play is another shared theme by both writers. Characters with mental afflictions, such as Tolkien’s Gollum is nothing new compared to the rather tormented and dually-minded character of Shakespeare’s Othello. Both the ring and Othello’s treasure, Desdemona, possess their minds to a point beyond rational thought and both stories feature an obsession with an accessory (the ring versus the handkerchief).
While it is evident that both writers share much more than themes and language, this series of essays is a reading essential for fans of either writer. As an educator, who strives to increase my own knowledge of the content I cover in my classroom, I will continue to learn as much as I can about both Shakespeare and Tolkien to be able to offer more insight on their works for my young students. Perhaps the greatest lesson I can take from either literary great is that a story, either presented on the stage or on a page, can transport the reader beyond this world and allow them to escape everyday life. For my students, the fantasy worlds of both Tolkien and Shakespeare have provided a positive escape and have enlightened their minds with the infinite amount of creative possibilities.